Autism Rates Higher for U.S.-Born Somali Children

Article Courtesy of The New York Times


Confirming the fears of Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Health Department agreed Tuesday that young Somali children there appeared to have higher-than-usual rates of autism.

Though health officials emphasized that their report was based on very limited data, they concluded that young Somali children appeared to be two to seven times as likely as other children to be in classes for autistic pupils.

Dr. Sanne Magnan, the state health commissioner, said the finding was “consistent with the observations by parents,” who have been saying for more than a year that alarming numbers of Somali children born in this country have severe autism. Somalis began immigrating into the area in the 1990s, fleeing civil war in their homeland. The report made no effort to explain why the children had autism. Its authors did not examine children or their medical records. They accepted the diagnoses — some by doctors, some by school evaluators — that admitted children to special-education classes, and they calculated rates for different ethnic groups. They counted only 3- to 4-year-olds, only children in Minneapolis public schools, and only children born in Minnesota. They drew no comparisons with Somalis in other cities.

There have been anecdotal reports of higher autism rates among Somalis in some American cities, and no formal studies. A small study in Sweden reported high rates among Somali schoolchildren in Stockholm.

Idil Abdull, the mother of an autistic child who has long tried to draw attention to the Minneapolis situation, said she was “happy that they said, ‘Yes, there is a problem.’ ”

“I knew they couldn’t count everyone,” added Ms. Abdull, a founder of the Somali American Autism Foundation. “I know there are Somalis whose kids are under the bed and not taken anywhere and kids who go to private schools or charter schools that weren’t counted.

“But at least they didn’t say, ‘No, it’s all in your minds.’ If they had done that, I’d picket in front of their building.”